The Best Of Joe Haldeman (book review).

‘The Best Of Joe Haldeman’ is another of Subterranean Press’s limited edition collections of work by a single author. In this case, it’s the ex-Vietnam vet Joe Haldeman, who made his name with the Science Fiction novel ‘The Forever War’. Published in 1974, it went on to win the Nebula Award in 1975 and the Hugo Award in 1976.


The book collects together nineteen of Haldeman’s shorter works. They cover the whole of his writing career and vary widely in subject matter, tone and length. The shortest is six pages long, while the longest is a novella of ninety pages. The earliest was published in 1972, the latest only two years ago. Most of them fall under the heading of SF but a couple are fantasy stories and a couple more have overtones of horror. Many of them display Haldeman’s wry sense of humour but others are very serious in intent. All in all, this is a collection that should dispel any notion that Joe Haldeman is a one-trick pony writing only military SF.

My favourite story in the collection was ‘For White Hill’, a novella published in 1995 as part of an anthology of far future SF put together by Greg Benford. A thousand years or more in the future, Earth is a dead wasteland, destroyed by nanophages dropped on it by aliens at war with humanity. To mark an anniversary of this event, artists from many different worlds are invited to come to the dead Earth and use their art to comment on what the aliens did. Two of them fall in love with each other while they are there, only to find their future in the balance as the full horror of what the aliens did to the Solar System becomes clear. This is a beautiful, heart-wrenching love story whose last couple of pages nearly made me cry. It is brilliantly told, using one of Shakespeare’s love sonnets as the inspiration for the fourteen piece structure. Haldeman shows us believably alien future humans and sets the foreground story in the midst of a slow-moving but very satisfying background. I thought this was near to perfect.

Seven of the stories tied for the second best slot. I won’t summarise them all but three that illustrate the range of this collection are worth picking out. ‘Seasons’ follows a team of xenologists sent to an alien planet to observe the giant humanoids there. The brief first contact mission reported that the aliens were peaceful and had a primitive culture, so the present team avoid taking along any advanced technology that might contaminate this culture. When they find out that the aliens’ outlook on life varies wildly with the season and that they have turned up during the aliens’ mindless savage phase, their idealistic decision not to bring a single advanced weapon with them suddenly seems rather foolish. This is an exciting and pacy story that has an interesting comment to make on a modern form of hubris, the over-confidence that is sometimes placed in the scientific method despite inadequate data being available to back up our firmly-held theories.

The longest story in the book, ‘The Hemingway Hoax’, is another highlight. John Baird is a college professor in Boston who specialises in the works of Ernest Hemingway. While on holiday in Florida, near to where Hemingway finished his days, Baird gets talking to a local con man called Sylvester Castlemaine. When Baird tells him about Hemingway’s famous lost manuscripts, Castlemaine suggests the idea of forging them and passing them off as real to make loads of money. Although initially dismissive of the idea, Baird decides to have a go just to see how difficult it might be. However, when someone who looks suspiciously like Hemingway turns up one day and tries to warn him off, Baird realises that he may have just got himself involved in something that’s well out of his comfort zone. Haldeman excels himself here, writing a novella based around the many world interpretation of quantum mechanics that is part travelogue, part homage to Hemingway and all stylist noir thriller.

‘The Monster’ is narrated by a Jamaican man currently behind bars. He fought in Vietnam, where two of his close friends got killed by some kind of supernatural monster while they were on patrol. He reported this and was unsurprisingly disbelieved. So when a Vietnamese soldier, keen to surrender, later told the US military that there was no monster, but that the soldier had killed his two friends himself, he ended up in jail. Who is telling the truth, the Jamaican or his Vietnamese accuser? This is a chilling short story that will keep you guessing right up until the last line.

I’ve highlighted four stories above but it’s important to say that I didn’t find a single weak story in the entire collection. On my own subjective marking system, none of the stories got less than seven out of ten. I can’t remember the last time I reviewed a short story collection or anthology of this length and didn’t find at least one joker in the pack.

If I was forced to make a criticism, it would concern the introductions to each story. They are written by Haldeman himself, and provide hugely interesting personal recollections about the genesis of each piece. However, in a career retrospective of this kind I think it would have been useful, in addition to these personal introductions, to have included some basic bibliographic information, such as when and where each story was first published. A few of the introductions provide some of this information, but a more structured approach would help the reader to put the stories into context more easily. Of course, I may just be saying that because I had to write this review and couldn’t find anything more important to criticise.

‘The Best of Joe Haldeman’ is an extremely impressive collection of the author’s finest shorter fiction. If you only know him from ‘The Forever War’ and would like to see the breadth of his talent you need look no further.

Patrick Mahon

May 2013

(pub: Subterranean Press. 497 page deluxe hardback. Price: $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-526-0)

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